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The Silliness and the Brilliance of Prop Politics
When President Obama was trying to build support for his highly unpopular Obamacare bill back in 2009, one of the selling points he laid on the American public was that the legislation had the backing of medical doctors. The assertion was presumed to be a compelling argument for why skeptical Americans should trust the content of the bill. The logic made sense. After all, doctors are highly-educated, respected people in our society. They're the ones whose wisdom and aid we turn to when we're in pain and suffering.
The only problem was that Obama's claim simply wasn't true. Numerous polls taken at the time revealed that a strong majority of doctors stood in opposition to the bill, just like the general public did.
The administration didn't give up on the narrative, however. Since reality wasn't on their side, they relied on perception. A White House photo-op was put together showing the president standing alongside 150 doctors from across the United States, all who supported the bill. To relieve any doubts from the American public regarding the credentials of these doctors, White House personnel passed out lab coats to each and every one of them to wear for the cameras. The sea of white was so brilliant that it would have been deemed racist by MSNBC's Chris Matthews had the event been a Tea Party rally.
A similar stunt was pulled this week when the president surrounded himself with children before unveiling new gun control measures that he signed into law by executive order. Unlike the lab coats, the children weren't brought over from the White House prop department. They were instead selected from a group of youngsters that had sent letters to the president following the Sandy Hook massacre, urging him to do something to help protect children from guns.
Just so the public would know the letters were genuine and not simply plagiarized by Joe Biden, they were released to the press. Their content not only revealed our innocent youth's concerns, but also their surprisingly advanced grasp of the balance between freedom and security, as well as our country's current political landscape. One of the letters even seemed to recommend that the president should circumvent the United States Congress to get the job done.
I wish I could fight back my cynicism here, but either my own children (who are around the same ages as the ones who wrote the letters) are receiving a shockingly inadequate education in comparison, or we've got some parents in this country who are training their kids with some early dictation skills.
Heck, if I had realized that all it would take is a child's letter to get the attention of the President of the United States, I would have had my son write him a long time ago, asking him to stop drowning his generation in debt.
Anyway, there's a reason that prop-politics exist. When it comes to complicated issues like healthcare and gun control, and you're not sure your case for controversial changes can stand on its own merits, it's best to dummy down the message to the lowest common denominator: Knee-jerk reactionism.
Putting a bunch of doctors in front of the cameras helps an argument because the visual image screams: "These people are smart! Listen to them!". Putting a bunch of kids in front of the cameras screams: "These kids are adorable! Help them!"
Is it insulting to our intelligence? For those of us who it doesn't work on, it is. But the truth is that it DOES work on a lot of people. So much so that I fear the day when the Obama administration realizes that they can combine the wisdom of a doctor and the innocence of a child into the ultimate public relations juggernaut: Doogie Howser, M.D!
After all, actor Neil Patrick Harris doesn't look all that different than he did twenty years ago.
For the stunt with the children this week, Obama took some criticism including some unflattering comparisons to famous, historical tyrants who also used children as props to push their agenda. I won't go as far as comparing our president to Hitler (and those who do aren't making themselves look particularly good), but I don't think anyone can argue that there isn't something very tacky about the practice.
Still, if this is the kind of stuff that works on an American public that is largely disinterested in serious issues, I think the Republican Party (that is in desperate need of a perception makeover right now) might just want to consider coming up with some props of their own.
If they do, I have the perfect idea - something that trumps both doctors and children: Puppies!
Let's face it, puppies are often better at making someone feel good than doctors are, and the honest truth is that other people's kids are never as cute as our own. Puppies, however, are universally appealing and endearing.
I'd start with John Boehner. This poor guy and his colleagues in the House have repeatedly tried to restore some semblance of fiscal sanity in Washington, but for their trouble, they're routinely branded as obstructionist idealogues who are holding the U.S. economy hostage.
Imagine, however, if Boehner stepped up to the podium at press conferences with a Basset Hound puppy nestled under his arm - one whose droopy, sympathetic eyes matched those of the House Speaker. How could anyone behold such a sight and think this guy's holding anything hostage when he's really holding a bundle of cuteness?
Picture Paul Ryan with a brilliant photo of a Labrador Retriever puppy pinned to the top of his economic-projection charts. Maybe then, people would actually look at those charts and suddenly wake up to the reality of how screwed our country's future is.
Chris Christie's with a Bulldog puppy? Hand him the 2016 presidency right now!
At this point, I'll go ahead and clarify something that is probably already obvious to the sane among us: I'm joking about the puppy stuff. I just figured it's worth spelling that out so the handful of lefty-blogs who've reprinted my humor columns in the past (under the premise that they were written in the literal sense) realize that I'm not being serious. Yes, this has happened.
However, there is a valid point to be made - one that I've made in other columns: The GOP can't continue to overestimate the commonsense held by an electorate that would re-elect President Obama. They need to accept the reality that a large number of people can have short attention-spans, be painfully gullible, and still find their way to voting booths on election day. This reality absolutely needs to be taken into consideration when developing party messaging.